This story is part of Amplify Oakland, our series of first-person stories shared by Oaklanders in their own words. Read more.

A couple of months ago, after I’d received news that two teens had been shot in East Oakland, I immediately attempted to call my 18-year-old son, to no avail. In a state of anxiety, I called my mother and told her I finally understood how she must have felt when I was a teen, growing up in Oakland amidst street violence. When I was finally able to make contact with my oldest son that day—it turns out he’d simply left his phone at home—I reprimanded him for not making sure I could get a hold of him right away. 

Sadly, the shootings on that day were just two of a great many that took place on Oakland streets in 2020. Incidents of gun violence have surged during the pandemic in Oakland, and in other cities like Chicago and Atlanta. Last year, for the first time since 2012, according to Oakland police records, over 100 people were murdered in the city. 

Witnessing the violence escalate, specifically on the east side, I felt compelled—as a third-generation East Oakland resident, a Black man, a single father raising two sons, a community organizer, and someone who has personally been involved in gun violence—to share my perspective. Unfortunately, based on my experiences growing up here in the 1980s and 1990s, I wasn’t at all surprised to see this surge in killings once COVID-19 and the lockdown order arrived in Oakland. But far more than most Oaklanders, I have the context needed to understand it.

Experiencing gun violence at an early age

I like to remind folks that my generation did not come of age during the heyday of the Black Panther Party. I was born in East Oakland in 1974, and the formative years of my life, like many of my peers, were greatly shaped by the crack epidemic.

By 1985, crack cocaine was grabbing a firm hold in many U.S. cities, including Oakland, and policies associated with the War on Drugs were having a direct impact on the streets. As criminal penalties for drug offenses increased, many adult drug dealers began to recruit children as young as 12 to participate, counting on the less-harsh sentences for minors. This led to a greater number of open-air drug markets in Oakland neighborhoods, with dozens of young people selling on street corners.

As drug selling became more visible and violent crime increased, many of my East Oakland neighbors—Black families and business owners who could afford to do so—chose to relocate to safer parts of Oakland, or out of city limits entirely. My best friend, whose dad was a retired major league baseball player, relocated to the more affluent Maxwell Park neighborhood. My aunt bought a house on a quiet street in Union City, which was only 20 miles away from East Oakland but it felt more like 20,000, with its relative affluence and suburban feel.

John Jones III (in red shirt) with his brother, sister, cousin, and aunt at their apartment on 92nd Avenue in East Oakland, circa 1984.
John Jones III (in red shirt) with his brother, sister, cousin, and aunt at their apartment on 92nd Avenue in East Oakland, circa 1984. Credit: courtesy John Jones III

While all of this was going on around me, I was graduating from sixth grade at Highland Elementary on 85th Avenue. I was a straight-A student and had earned every academic award in my class, including being named the school’s spelling champ.

But in 1986, beginning at the age of 12, a series of events took place that radically changed the course of my life, as police presence continued to increase dramatically in my neighborhood. The first occurred when a police officer slammed me against a wall during a “raid” while calling me the n-word. I was too young to fully understand the concept of structural racism, but what I did take away was how I was viewed by cops and the wider society. I determined that if I did not warrant their respect, they in turn did not deserve mine.

That summer was also the first time I was ever shot at. I was walking down the street with my two older cousins when three teens, around our age, opened fire at us, at close range. I froze, and the sight and sound of a bullet striking a stop sign awoke me from my stupor as I ran away. To this day I often reflect back and ask myself what transpired in the lives of those young men that would cause them to fire on random strangers over something as meaningless as a “mean mug.” We did not know them, never met before, and my cousins and I were not involved in drugs or at that time affiliated with any turfs. We were just kids walking down a residential street. I resolved internally that if I was to survive the streets of East Oakland, I would have to adopt a different mentality.

1986 was also the year I witnessed the funeral procession of Felix Mitchell, as it moved through East Oakland. Mitchell rose to prominence at a time when manufacturing jobs were disappearing and an influx of cheap drugs was flowing into Oakland. He had the business acumen of a CEO, but with little other opportunity, he chose to apply it to Oakland’s lucrative drug trade, which he led for a decade. After he was arrested, and later stabbed and killed while serving his sentence in federal prison, the local drug economy became dangerously destabilized as mid-level drug dealers violently sought to climb the ranks to that number one spot, a phenomenon that law enforcement agencies even dubbed the “Felix Mitchell Paradox.” The community’s widespread adoration for Mitchell reinforced for me—and my friends and many young men of our age—that the pathway to escaping a life of poverty, and commanding value and respect, was the dope game.

John Jones III with his mother at his middle school graduation. Jones did not receive his diploma but was allowed to walk the stage with his class. Credit: courtesy John Jones III

As a result, by the time I was 13, without hope or any visual evidence of the rewards of an education, I’d dropped out of school and had become immersed in selling drugs. I was 14 when the first of many of my close friends was murdered. The same year, I saw a dead body lie in the streets for hours as motorists simply drove around the corpse. 

As the homicides around me increased, I reached a place in my mind where I felt I would not live to see adulthood. I bought my first gun, amazed by how easy and cheap it was. Many of the crack customers would trade things for drugs, and guns were part of that. I reached a point where I would sleep with two pistols under my pillow. Everyone in the crew had guns, and we had easy access to many stash spaces close by, as rivalries fueled by drug-turf beefs and street bravado resulted in frequent gun exchanges between crews. 

I did not have a natural predisposition to violence but some of my friends did, and they made sure I was also willing to engage. This was ultimately a matter of survival. If I didn’t win over their confidence and trust, then I would be left alone to fend for myself. In the streets of Oakland that we knew, there are certain “rules,” and the primary one is retaliation at all costs. Young people did not create these rules, yet are expected to follow them at the risk of being isolated and even punished by their peers.

At 16, my life took another drastic turn when, in a case of mistaken identity, I was violently attacked by boys my age with metal pipes. I knew that the code of the streets demanded immediate and swift retaliation. I did not want to take that step, but was mindful of the need to always protect my reputation. The memory of being shot at when I was 12 also loomed large in my mind. Tragically, as a result, another young person was killed in a shooting in which I was directly involved. 

I was arrested and tried as an adult for first-degree murder, receiving a court sentence of 26 years to life. As the result of a plea deal, I ultimately served eight years at the California Youth Authority, a division of the state department of corrections that houses young people up to age 25 convicted of serious offenses.

Creating the conditions for violence

While incarcerated, I had time to reflect on how violence had shaped and informed my life. I vividly recall that during my initial intake at California Youth Authority, which includes a psychological evaluation, I was asked: “When you were attacked, why didn’t you go to the police?” After getting over my initial shock at the question, it dawned on me that the intake person and I were from different worlds—he would never understand the unwritten rules that dictated life for many people in my neighborhood. It also drove home for me the fact that what many of us experience in East Oakland is far from “normal.” And that I, like many of the young folks in CYA incarcerated for murder, was the product of an environment and system that I did not create.

John Jones III at California Youth Authority with his sister and youngest brother, circa 1994. Credit: courtesy John Jones III

As someone who is now working to prevent violence in Oakland as a community organizer and policymaker—as well as a former perpetrator and victim—I believe one of the greatest challenges we face to curbing violence in our city is the loss of institutional memory. While it’s true that violent crime has risen in Oakland and other cities since the onset of COVID-19, it’s not occurring in a vacuum. To gain a better understanding of what’s driving the violence, it’s crucial to first examine a few important aspects of Oakland’s history that helped to create these conditions.

John Jones III’s grandfather, who he was named after, fought in World War II. Credit: courtesy John Jones III

After the formation of the Black Panther Party in 1966, white flight accelerated in East Oakland as well, facilitating the move into those neighborhoods of many Black residents who’d previously been excluded by decades of racist housing policies. That group included my grandparents, who bought their home in East Oakland in 1971. Like many others, they moved there to escape overcrowded and impoverished conditions in West Oakland, and to have easier access to East Oakland’s manufacturing jobs. (At one point in time, Oakland was referred to as the “Detroit of the West,” with three major car assembly plants occupying the current sites of Eastmont Town Center, Foothill Square, and Durant Shopping Center.)

As recently as the early 1960s, East Oakland was 80% white and considered an affluent suburb. In fact, the neighborhoods of Brookfield and Sobrante Park in deep East Oakland, which are now comprised almost entirely of Black and brown residents, were created in the 1940s as a white enclave for those fleeing West Oakland, which was rapidly becoming a Black community due to the influx of folks moving here from the American South during and after World War II.

But as white residents continued leaving East Oakland throughout the 1970s and 1980s, manufacturing jobs and financial institutions went with them. As a result, the upward mobility that was still present during my grandparents’ lifetimes—both were employed at the old Safeway headquarters at Seminary Avenue and East 14th Street—had practically disappeared by the time my parents came of age in the 1970s.

I often think about the impact of those years on my parents, especially my dad. My parents met at Fremont High School, and my mother was still a student there when I was born. My dad always seemed able to get a job, but just couldn’t keep one for various reasons. By the time he was 21, he had two young kids and my mother to take care of financially. We experienced housing instability during the early years of my life, and I am more than sure those pressures led him to self-medicate.

John Jones III as a baby, with his parents in Oakland. Credit: courtesy John Jones III

With many Black families like mine struggling financially, the underground economy—fueled by sex trafficking, heroin, cocaine, and later crack—became a viable and lucrative source of income, and created cash that also fed the legal businesses along the East 14th Street corridor. 

The prevalence of illegal drugs in Oakland and other U.S. cities with large Black communities during the 1970s and 80s was wielded as a convenient weapon to turn against people who were already suffering. President Richard Nixon had launched the War on Drugs in 1971 by declaring that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.” Over the next several decades, draconian drug laws led to mass incarceration and the creation of systemic barriers that disproportionately impact Black people, and to this day make it extremely difficult for one to successfully reintegrate back into society after release from prison. This period also marked the beginning of a dramatic redirecting of public funding for education, workforce development, mental health care, and after-school programs (like the ones I participated in as a child) into policing, jails, and prisons.

I felt the impact of these policies firsthand when I was released from prison for the last time in 2012, for a prior charge. Despite being a licensed FAA aircraft mechanic (I went to aviation school in Oakland and received my license in 2005) I was unable to find employment—one had to be felony-free for ten years to be able to work at an airport, and I was not. Despite having an in-demand advanced skill, I experienced chronic homelessness for eight years.

Fearing a rise in violence during the pandemic

East Oakland was plagued by high unemployment long before the pandemic hit, and the Bay Area tech sector was already inflating the cost of housing for many longtime residents. As COVID-19 increased people’s financial instability even further, it was bound to exacerbate other societal ills.

By early summer last year, the virus began to take root within the jails and the prisons, and many advocates lobbied for the early release of folks from incarceration. As someone formerly incarcerated who’d also experienced homelessness, what alarmed me was the absence of a plan to also address barriers to stable housing, jobs, and support services that people often need when reentering society. 

I was concerned that community members experiencing mental illness or those impacted by PTSD, specifically from violence, might see their conditions worsen due to social isolation. Too many young people, by the time they enter middle school, witness someone they’re close to lose their life to violence. That trauma greatly shapes how they show up in the community and at school, and how they view themselves and the society around them. When I was first shot at from close range at the tender age of 12, the violence and resulting trauma led me from being a straight-A student to, four years later, getting arrested for first-degree murder.

Also, for many people suffering from alcohol and drug addiction—diseases that have plagued East Oakland for decades—sheltering-in-place is not an option. Folks will still pursue their drug of choice on the streets, to self-medicate. 

There are other factors increasing the potential for violence in Oakland, which I feared could be exacerbated by the pandemic.

When I was a teen in the 1980s, many of the local fast-food jobs were held by high school students who supplemented the incomes of their struggling families. Today, many of these jobs are held by adults, who themselves don’t have access to viable employment. This has had a ripple effect on young people, making them more prone to illegal activities and vulnerable to violence.

The shrinking of crack and other drug sales due to federal and local crackdowns, punitive sentencing guidelines, reduced demand for street dealers due to statewide legalization of marijuana has reduced demand for, and gentrification have all combined to result in less cash in the underground economy. It’s my belief that these factors have contributed directly to the rise in cell phone and laptop thefts, home invasions, and gun trafficking in Oakland that leads to more violence.

For these reasons, shortly after the first shelter-in-place order was announced, I raised the alarm to community members and decision-makers alike, sharing my concerns about a number of unintended consequences, including the possibility that there could be a rise in violence in Oakland. My concern wasn’t shared by some in the community, who asserted that if folks “just stayed in the house” they would be safe.

Still, some progress has been made. As the campaign director of the Alameda County Fair Chance Housing Coalition, my team and I worked diligently to get ordinances passed in Oakland and Berkeley in early March, just as the pandemic was taking hold in the U.S., preventing landlords from conducting criminal background checks on most prospective renters. And the organization I work for, Just Cities, successfully lobbied for $900,000 from the Oakland City Council to help arrange emergency housing for folks coming home from jails and prisons during the pandemic.

I felt compelled to write this piece not only as someone who experienced and survived the violence of the late 80s and 90s in Oakland, but as a father who now fears for his kids growing up here.

Not long after the two shootings that had caused me to worry about and later reprimand my 18-year-old son, he approached me for a talk. He told me that witnessing several of his own friends murdered by gun violence had affected his motivation in life. He spoke about being at a crossroads, not wanting to participate in violence but fearful of being placed in situations beyond his control. He said he did not know if his life would end violently on these streets.

As a father, I carry the weight of my son’s words. If I don’t do everything within my power to protect my sons and prevent them from experiencing the same issues I had while coming of age in East Oakland, I will have failed. Violence and PTSD have caused that “light” to dim in the eyes of so many young people who have been personally impacted. I want that bright light to continue emanating from the eyes of my precocious six-year-old, who has not yet experienced the big tragedies, or big joys, of life that his brother and father have known. 

I hope that by sharing my personal story and laying out many of the factors that contribute to gun violence, including the terrible rise in deaths we’ve seen in Oakland during the pandemic, we as a community can put ourselves in a better position to eliminate it. We must end the politicization of the societal ills we are experiencing and collectively come together to implement real solutions—now. It is not enough to feel outraged by the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, yet remain silent when youth and other neighbors are being murdered here in our own backyard.

John Jones III is the Director of Community and Political Engagement at Just Cities. He is a father of three, a third-generation East Oakland resident, and a formerly incarcerated advocate seeking to transform his community. After a prolonged period of being un-sheltered and unemployed, John became involved in working on the local, county, and state levels on campaigns and ballot measures to advance affordable housing, employment, ending mass incarceration, police accountability, and racial equity.